CHAPTER ONE

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-Eight months later-

The freezing January wind crashed around Aaron's Toyota, whistling shrilly as it poked and prodded at us, easily destabilizing our movement as though we were no bigger than a matchbox car.

I snuggled deeper into the warmth of my ski jacket, feeling thankful it still fit; the last ski trip I'd been on was over three years ago, and I didn't usually need such a warm wardrobe for the standard mild winters of East Texas ― but this year, the temperatures were plummeting well beyond expectation, and I'd worn my fat ski jacket more in the last two months than in the last few years combined.

It wasn't joyriding weather, that was for sure. Wet weather in the cold months meant the whole of East Texas shut down, and today was no exception. We were one of the rare cars on these country backroads, and if our parents knew we were out galavanting in this weather, they'd tan our hides for sure. But....

I stole a glimpse at my handsome boyfriend behind the wheel, his focus intent on the slick road stretching before us. I found myself staring at his chiseled jawline, the broad cheekbones projecting from a face that always caught my breath in my chest, just a little bit, no matter how many times I saw it.

The car jolted violently over a pothole.

"Sorry," Aaron apologized. I entwined a hand into his hair at the base of his neck, scratching his scalp, and he closed his eyes for a split second, one corner of his mouth turning up in gratitude.

He'd been uptight for several days. It wasn't what he'd said that tipped me off, but what he hadn't said ― and I was determined to get to the bottom of it, even if it meant foolhardy joyriding across possible black ice to do so.

"You're quiet again today," I pointed out.

A sigh escaped him; the sound was tired, dejected. "Just thinking."

"Talk to me." I watched his face scrunch up the way it did when he was deliberating very carefully about something ― but then he shook his head, dislodging my hand.

"Nah. It's fine. It's not that important."

"Aaron..."

"Really. I'm just making mountains out of molehills. You know, normal stuff." He cast a half-hearted grin my way.

I exhaled on a groan and massaged my temples with both hands. I hated secrets. Keeping them was nearly impossible for me, a special brand of torture, but having them kept from me.... "Is it your parents? That stupid college fight again?"

Aaron's jaw flexed, but he said nothing.

"I've told you a thousand times, you don't have to go to college. If you really want to pursue trade school, you could pay your own way, without a dime of your parents' money. There's more and more financial aid available for that now ― scholarships, grants, loans, the works. It's just a matter of finding one that―"

"No, it's not that." Uneasiness was etched into the striking features of his face.

"Then what?"

The wind hammered against the car, jarring us again, and Aaron leaned forward to better grip the wheel.

"What, Aaron? You can tell me."

His question came forth softly, so simple and unassuming, and for a moment, I didn't realize the gravity of it. "Do you love me?"

I blinked. My entire body went rigid, as though I'd been hit with a tranquilizer straight to my vitals, paralyzing me. His words echoed in my ears as an unspoken tension charged the air, and I could feel it squeezing, pulsing, ringing, all the way to my soul. I swallowed.

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